Get insights from a real character designer. In this interview, Sharon Ross explains how she went from art student to illustrator to character designer for Family Guy.
- I'm Sharon Ross. I'm a Character Designer and that means I do the visual representation of a character from a story. Hopefully you get an idea of the sense of who he is from how he looks, like age, sex and physical attitude, things like that, but also personality traits and things like that. So we start from the script and then, with input from the director, we do designs before the storyboards usually and then after that's done we end up doing turnarounds of the character so that you can see them from all angles, so the animators know exactly what they're going to look like.
So for that show we do a lot of incidental characters, caricatures of celebrities and things like that. You have to do the turnarounds like I said. We do mouth charts for lip sync, Sometimes construction pages and expression pages, and of course that's, you know, coming from a 2D standpoint. Sometimes you have to do fuller turnarounds if they have more action or if it's for feature production. Also special poses and that's a big one on Family Guy because a lot of times we have characters who are, well, just changed their clothes or get deformed in some way, like Peter dressed in a nice outfit and his hair up like Julia Roberts on Pretty Woman, or like Brian when he's dead and run over.
Sometimes like their arm's cut off so then you have to design it from the bone out with the blood and all and that's really common on our show (chuckles). My first job in animation was at Klasky Csupo. I worked on Aaahh!!! Real Monsters which was really fun. It was a good place to start because they were quick to hire to inexperienced people at that time and you could work with the more experienced and very talented animators they had there. On my first day there, an award-winning animation director, although I didn't know it at the time, asked me if I knew how to turn characters and I said, "Yeah sure," and then I had to go back to my seat and quickly learn how to do that by looking at all the stuff that they had there, they'd done in the past, and that's not really the way I'd recommend doing it, but that's how it happens sometimes.
I do a lot of freelance and a lot of that involves Family Guy, promotional artwork for magazines and articles, mobile games, things like that. And I've done a lot of products, books, greeting cards over the years, but my main focus right now is children's books, children's picture books. I'm working with an author right now and I really like that. It's especially great because I get to be involved in the story part of it. I enjoy the complete freedom in developing the style in which I want to work and I'm really enjoying that.
For me that kind of started way back, my first job out of college was at Hallmark Cards and as a person from a small town in Kansas, it was kind of the most immediate opportunity, and a lot of the projects there involved licensed characters so that led me to my job at Disney. There it was very important for me to learn how to draw in the Disney style and keep the characters consistent. So that's a very important part of animation, so that helped me transition into animation.
I studied illustration, my BFA was Visual Communications with an emphasis in illustration. We studied color and layout and graphic design, that sort of thing, and the basic drawing skills, which is really important. I went directly to Hallmark. That's where the illustration came in handy. And, oh, there I worked on a lot of licensed characters so that led me to my Disney job, and in that job it was very important for me to learn to draw within the Disney style and keep the characters consistent.
Well, my friends who are teachers tell me that they're stressing basic drawings skills so I think that's covered but that is definitely a very important one because you kind of need that in almost anything you do in animation. Sometimes I see that they're not quite focusing on that as much, maybe as it has been in the past, but the thing that I think might not be mentioned is developing your reputation. Your skills and your experience are of course vital for getting jobs but you shouldn't overlook developing your work reputation.
You definitely want to take pride in your work and do the best you can at all times. Communicate openly with your directors or coworkers. You can get jobs on your skills but the personal recommendation is a very important thing. I know that I've gotten jobs that way, practically all the jobs I've gotten were that way. In fact, one time I was at a gas station in Burbank and I ran into this guy that I used to work with and he recommended that I come over to Disney and recommended me so I got that job that way.
I mean it can come from anywhere, so your path follows you. Okay, I don't know if it's a great story or not but it's one that definitely affected me. This was before I started in animation, in fact right before my first animation job. I was doing some work for a style guide for the movie Casper, which meant I was drawing a lot of poses of ghosts and things and I was invited over to Universal to sit in on a meeting and consult on some maquettes that were constructed, they were constructions of the characters and to make sure that they were on model or make suggestions if it was necessary to achieve that.
So Steven Spielberg was in the movie and this was, you know he was having a really good career at the time, and the creator of Casper and some other people, like myself, some producer types, that sort of thing, and the girl who brought me a cappuccino, I remember that,. So Steven Spielberg walks in, says hi to everybody and just immediately immerses himself in the maquettes. And that's, what really amazed me was watching him, I could see that he really loved what he did. He was totally into every aspect of it and he was completely relaxed, totally unstressed, even though I'm sure he was being pulled a lot of different directions and it wasn't about the business of anything it was about the creation of what he was working on.
He was totally into every aspect and that really impressed me because I realized that he really did love what he was doing and that it was a great example to me that if I can do what it is that I love, rewards come from that and not only that but to love what you're doing, when you do it, because that's where happiness comes from too. Well, I do try to keep up on new software because the mechanics of creating are changing all the time.
I sometimes take classes and learn new things or brush up on things that I've just kind of started on before. Well, for me, you know we were working with animation paper and pencils and then all of a sudden, just overnight, we put that away, brought out the Cintiqs, and started drawing there and on my crew we use Photoshop. So that was, it was a change but honestly I think it was a change for the better.
I mean, not only are you saving trees in that way, but it's easy to, when you're in production, to alter things very quickly, so I kind of enjoy that. There's definitely differences. I know for certain things I still like to draw with pencils and sometimes that's when I'm just, you know, making things up in that beginning stage where I don't really know where I'm going with it, making shapes and seeing what comes of it, but, you know, I tend to kind of do that a little bit on the Cintiq as well.
I'm not sure how critical it is really. I think the main thing is just that people really need to learn how to draw in the beginning, whatever tools they use. You know it comes from here anyway. For example I had an injury when I was working at Disney and I had to be on disability for seven months. It was cubital tunnel thing, and so I didn't get to draw for seven months and I thought, Oh my God, when I go back I'm gonna be so rusty, I was kind of nervous about that. But the whole time I had been thinking about things and so when I returned to work, I actually drew better than I did before I left.
It's not from the hands, you know. So I think the tools are maybe not as critical as sometimes people make it out. Well there is something, something very important that I would focus on and that's time management. I know that sounds silly but when you're working a 40-hour week, throwing in freelance on the side, special projects and trying to maintain relationships, and just generally have a life, sometimes it hard to work in all the creative projects that you want, but of course that balance is really important because as an artist, to be fulfilled, you need that well-rounded picture.
Well I would like to learn animation because I'd like to some little shorts on my own so I need to learn slash brush up or get better at doing that, that could come in handy. And I want to learn Painter now. I've just loaded that onto my computer and even though that's been around for quite a while I think it would be fun to pull some of the traditional stuff into my digital illustration.
Mmm, of course I always like to travel, because that's so fun to see different environments and people and art. Children's books, I love going to the bookstore and just looking through the pictures. That's one of the most fun things for me.